Movie Review: On Dangerous Ground (1951)
“In One Strange Night she met both LOVE … and MURDER!”
On Dangerous Ground (1951)
Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond
Synopsis: A troubled city cop is sent upstate to investigate the rape and murder of a teenage girl.
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Robert Ryan (The Sky’s the Limit, The Wild Bunch) was never a conventional leading man. Hollywood seemed uncomfortable with his rugged features – a legacy from the years he boxed competitively in the army – and was never certain whether to cast him as a good guy or bad. In real life, Ryan was a pacifist and campaigner for civil rights, but on screen he was equally comfortable playing good or bad, which made him a perfect choice to get across the duality of Jim Wilson, the troubled cop he plays in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground.
Wilson is a bachelor who lives in a small apartment, and Ray is at pains to contrast his solitary lifestyle with those of his two older partners: Pete (Anthony Ross – Rogue Cop, The Country Girl) has a loving wife who hates him going to work, while Pop Daly (Charles Kemper – Scarlet Street, Wagon Master) reluctantly leaves behind a small tribe of little Pops each time he puts in a shift. Wilson has nobody to unload to at the end of the working day, nobody to fetch him a drink and rub his shoulders and provide some light to balance the darkness that’s such a major part of his job. He’s been on the force eleven years, and the lifestyle is starting to grind. His patience has worn thin, particularly with petty criminals who refuse to tell him what he wants to know, and so he’s taken to beating the information out of them. It would be difficult for Wilson to remain sympathetic if these violent episodes didn’t distress him as much as his victims. He’s close to tears as he advances on one of them, crying out: “Why do you make me do it? You know you’re gonna talk! I’m gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk! Why do you do it? Why?”
Wilson finally crosses the line when he beats a guy after being warned off by his boss, Captain Brawley (Ed Begley – Billion Dollar Brain, Hang ‘Em High), and so, more for appearances sake than anything else, Brawley sends him upstate to a snowy mountain town to investigate the rape and murder of a teenage girl. Once there, he runs into Walter Brent (Ward Bond – It’s a Wonderful Life, 3 Godfathers), the dead girl’s father, who has a rifle glued to his hand, and is promising to get his revenge on whoever killed his daughter. Eventually, the trail leads to Danny Malden (Sumner Williams), a teenage boy who lives with his sister, Mary (Ida Lupino – Junior Bonner), in a secluded cabin on the edge of town. After losing a suspect near the cabin, Wilson and Brent call on Mary, and it’s not long before Wilson realises she’s blind. Danny is his eyes, she tells them, presenting us with a different image of the boy to that painted by the grieving father who is determined to avenge his daughter’s death.
In a movie which otherwise weighs the emotional responses of its characters with pinpoint accuracy, Brent’s permanent belligerence feels a little off. He’s there to hold a mirror up to Wilson, to give the cop an insight into how he appears to his friends and colleagues, and therefore plays a part in Wilson’s redemption that is just as important as the one played by Mary. But, even in a situation as distressing as Brent’s, the average person would eventually regain a measure of calmness instead of maintaining a red-faced rage the way that Brent does. The film’s brisk running time no doubt limits the opportunities for a more nuanced depiction, but after a while you get to wondering why Wilson doesn’t just get someone from the local sheriff’s office to remove him from the scene.
On Dangerous Ground is just as divided as its lead character; changing tone as it forsakes the dark, forbidding city streets for the clean open spaces of the mid-winter countryside. Its Noir trappings are just as important as symbols of Wilson’s state of mind as they are a means of establishing mood and atmosphere. Ryan sensitively handles the slow transformation of his character, unobtrusively stripping away the brutish mask to reveal the decent man beneath. He does fall a little fast in the face of Lupino’s carefully measured performance as the quietly stoic Mary but, hey – he’s only got 82 minutes…
(Reviewed 24th November 2016)